Thursday, January 11, 2007

"Heading South"©

The following short story, "Heading South," © by Paul Berge, was written in 1987 and updated in 2007. It appears on the audiobook the Logbook © (artwork by John McCloy). All rights reserved by the author and Ahquabi House Publishing, LLC. For reprint permission or for details on how to submit your aviation short story (you won't get paid so don't quit the day job) please contact Ahquabi House Publishing, LLC at or call 515-961-0654

"Heading South" © 1987, Paul Berge


“United’s heading two-sixty and descending to six. Northwest is climbing to eight, ‘cause you have to miss this Merlin over-flight at nine.”
“Is Northwest on course yet?”
“No,” I answered. The other controller slid her chair past mine and scribbled her initials onto the sign-on position log.
“I got it,” she drawled.
“You got it,” I answered. I heard how bored I sounded, as though someone else had spoken.
I unplugged my headset from the slot below the radarscope. It was time to leave. I’d been there since dawn. Seemed it was all I did anymore.

Leaving any radar room is like leaving a bar in the middle of the day. It takes a while for your eyes to adjust and you feel as though the rest of the world has gone on without you. But it was spring and the air smelled sweet, but as I walked toward my car I was thinking about things such as what to have for dinner and why I didn’t care what I had for dinner. Maybe I’d have that dream again about the radarscope that turns to JELL-O just as all the all the blips come together. I hadn’t had that dream for almost 20 years and, lately, it’d been returning. Four more years until retirement at age 50. Hope the dream goes away.

Just as I turned out of the parking lot, I passed the hangars on the general aviation ramp. Inside one hangar was a 1946 Aeronca 7AC Champ, my one escape. Although I hadn’t flown it in over a month, it never left my mind. Circumstances had somehow kept me away.
It hurt to think of the pilots who would give their teeth to have their own tail dragger parked in a hangar waiting to fly. Worse, it hurt to think that I was once one of those pilots. But something had happened. All day long I talk to airplanes but never see one if I'm inside the radar room. Flying, to me, had lost its romance, and the Champ--through no fault of its own--had become an airplane in definition only.
The day was warm even for early May. Cumulus clouds grew slowly in the western sky. Later, they would grow into whitish blobs on the radarscope giving headaches to pilots and controllers. But now they were just puffy white clouds yearning for a taildragger, like the Champ, to kiss. I considered obliging and found the car steering its way through the open gate toward the hangar.
Before I could make it to the hangar, however, I spotted something among the rows of metal airplanes. Behind a Twin Cessna and across from a Piper Navajo sat a two-seat, fabric-covered tail dragger with its door open. It was a Champ but new to the field, and from the looks of the person loading baggage it would soon depart. I drove over.

“Hello,” I called and stopped the car.
The pilot turned, and a quick smile appeared on the bright face below a rumpled baseball cap. “Hello,” she answered. “Am I in your tie-down spot?” She slid from the airplane and met me as I stepped from the car.
“I didn’t know where to park yesterday. It was almost dark when we arrived. There was no one here.”
She wore faded blue jeans, the cuffs rolled above her ankles, tattered white tennis shoes and a tee shirt with the faded image of a Cub printed across her breasts. Nice, I might add, breasts...not the sort of thing a federal employee is supposed to notice. But I was off duty.

“Are you new to the field?” I asked for an opener. What I really wanted to say was: “Hey, you don’t know me and, even though at the moment I reek of stale radar I’m really all right and would you mind very much running off with me? I’m that pathetically lonely. We could fly Champs together forever while living off our savings, assuming you’re wealthy…”
“Sort of,” she said. I don’t think she caught the underlying text. “I’m just passing through.”
“Where to?”
“Oh, heading south it looks like.” She glanced at the sky.
“What’s there?”
“I don’t know.” She shrugged so cute my eyeballs sighed. “I’ve never been that way before. I guess it’s time to go see. Do you have an airplane?” Her voice was absolutely sweet with a trace of husky self-confidence.
Do I have an airplane? Oh, Jeez, I knew the answer to that question, but for the love of mud my brain locked. Finally: “Yes. A…a Champ, as a matter of fact. Care to see it? It’s just over there--in a hangar.” I pointed in case she'd never seen a hangar before. I felt like I was asking a girl to dance at the Freshman Acne Pimple Ball.
She nodded, yes, turned quickly to the airplane and called: “Now, you stay there, Elizabeth, I’ll be right back.”
Whoa, I thought. She's named her airplane, Elizabeth? That's when I saw a little face pop over the rear window ledge. A black nose, black floppy ears and sad brown eyes looked first at her and then suspiciously at me. Elizabeth.
“Your dog flies with you?” And as soon as I asked, the concept made sense. Why shouldn't your dog fly with you? I looked where the rear seat cushion would normally be and saw, instead, a small metal box padded with a blanket. A cargo net hung off to the side.
“The net acts like a seat belt,” she explained. “She's a good dog; she’ll stay put until we get back.”
We left and the dog followed.

“My name’s Kim,” she said. Her face seemed to light up like a bright moon whenever she spoke. She bounced lightly on her feet as she walked, her whole being exuding a happiness with whatever she did. The feeling was catchy. Just walking beside her made me feel good.
“Michael,” I said and held out my hand. “I’m Michael.” She took it without hesitation. Her grip was firm and confident.
We arrived at the hangar.
“It’s been a while since I’ve been in here,” I said.
“Why? Is there something wrong with your airplane?”
“No, it’s me."
“What's wrong with you?”
“I haven’t had time to go up lately.”
“Why not?” She was direct.
“Work,” I said having no other excuse. The job was always an easy place to dump responsibility. The minute I tell people I’m an air traffic controller a knowing look comes to their eyes, automatically excusing me from normal behavior. It’s like telling someone you’re a kamikaze pilot.
“What do you do?” she asked.
I slid the long hangar door open, like rolling away the stone before a tomb. “Air traffic controller,” I answered and watched for the look. She only stared--no look; in fact, not impressed at all. “I work in the approach control, the TRACON.” I motioned vaguely at the control tower across the field.
“And that keeps you from flying?” she asked with her same directness. Her face carried the smile that could do no wrong.
To redirect the conversation I pointed inside the hangar and said, “There it is.”
Dusty sunlight spread across the Champ. She walked toward it, approaching as she would an untamed animal. She ran two fingertips along the back of the fuselage and wiped away a layer of brown silt. She rubbed the dirt between her fingers and said nothing, but the message was clear: ‘You shameful person. There are people in China going without any kind of airplane, and here you keep one locked away where it collects dust and rots. Shame…’
“You should fly it,” she said. “Maybe wash it.”
I guess she sensed how uncomfortable I’d become, and her eyes turned soft as she walked toward me. “It’s a beautiful airplane.”
And it was, too. Under the dust was a well-restored airplane painted light yellow with a black upper cowling and deep black lines outlining the struts and landing gear. The glass was in excellent shape and mostly free of scratches. The interior almost new. It wasn’t original but I liked it.
“Would you like to fly it?” I asked.
“I have to be going. Burning daylight.” She brushed past me with what I imagined to be a brief pause to smile.
I followed her back to her airplane and watched Elizabeth hop into the box in the rear. Kim fastened the net over the box, and the dog curled into a tight circle in the blankets.
“Will you come back this way?” I asked.
She climbed into the front seat and while fastening her seatbelt said, “No. At least not soon. Could you give me a spin?” She indicated the propeller. Old Champs have no electrical systems, so you have to hand-prop them to start.
“Sure...” I said, and then quickly added, “ Do you mind if I ask you something?”
“I don’t know. What’s the question?”
“How is it you can do this?” I motioned slightly, hoping she would understand what I was asking, but the truth was I was unsure myself what I wanted to know. “How can you, ah, do you have a job?”
“How is it I can fly around whenever I want? Is that it?”
I nodded.
“I’m asked that often,” she said leaning forward. I waited for some revelation about her, but she tilted her head and with a giggle said, “I just do it. That’s all. It’s not difficult.” She saw my blank expression and added, “Have you ever tried it?”
“You mean just pack up and leave?” I snapped my fingers. “Just like that?”
She snapped hers back only louder. “Yes, like that.” She laughed and, “Why not?”
Why not? I found myself pointing at the control tower across the field. She turned.
“That?” she asked. “But that’s just a job. How can that stand in the way of doing anything?” She shook her head and smiled again. My shoulders drooped.
“My job’s important,” I protested weakly. “I, I need it.”
“If that’s what you want,” she replied.
“It’s not that I want it...”
“Well, then?”
“A person can’t just...just leave. You know...” I found myself flapping my arms and feeling foolish. “You don’t understand,” I muttered.
“No, I don’t. Could you spin the prop? I’d like to get going. You’re welcome to come along.”
I felt myself reel from her dare. There were too many things to hold me back, and I desperately groped for the safety of an excuse to avoid another chance to really live.
“I can’t,” I said and took the propeller blade in my hands. “Switch on… Brakes on…Throttle cracked?”
She repeated my calls verifying the magneto switch and brakes were on and throttle slightly opened. I pulled the propeller through and stepped aside. The engine caught with a bark and idled. I walked away from the spinning disk and stood with my hands inside my pockets watching her. I decided I’d fallen in love with the woman I'd met only 30 minutes prior. She closed the door and picked a handheld transceiver from the floor to call ground control to taxi.
I watched her for a minute and then she turned, waved and flashed a devastating smile. Elizabeth poked her nose through the netting above the box, shook her head as though to indicate, You idiot, and they taxied away.
Soon, I stood alone on a quiet ramp watching a small tail dragger follow a Boeing 737. The Boeing departed in a roar of jet noise and climbed high above the distant tower. Two minutes later the Champ took the runway and, in a faint ticking of the four-cylinder motor, it rose slowly from the pavement and headed south.
Kim and Elizabeth were gone.

That night I fell asleep on the couch and awoke after midnight from a soft dream about pastures and airplanes flying low over treetops on warm afternoons. Or was it cool mornings? I couldn’t remember.
Alone in the pre-dawn quiet, I thought of Kim and her Champ. I wished I had a dog in a box on the back seat. And I wished with intense longing for the courage to say, “I’m heading south because I’ve never been there.”

It was my day off. Tomorrow I'd be back into the radar room for scheduled overtime, an amusing term, 'scheduled overtime,' it sounds like a scheduled mistake. I tried to fall back to sleep and return to the dream world I'd found with the treetops and pastures--with the tail draggers.
But my mind stayed awake and my body followed. Sleep would not come. Around four I sat up and stared out the window and over the rooftops to the east where a thunderstorm died and the sun had yet to appear.
“Which way is south?” I asked the darkness and turned to the four walls and the refrigerator humming politely in the kitchen but no one answered.
“South is that way,” I said and walked to the large window overlooking the parking garage. I thought I saw her face in the dark trees but shook it off.
I dressed.

The airport was abandoned at 5 o'clock when I pulled up to the gate in the chain link fence. Birds flew in noisy swarms from the trees, heading out to scrounge for breakfast. The gate squeaked on rusty hinges and clanked shut behind me. The eastern sky grew pink melting the last of the stars. I opened the hangar door.
“I’m sorry,” I said to my airplane. “I’m sorry I’ve been away so long.” I walked around it, running my fingers through the layer of grime. I saw where Kim had left two parallel trails in the dust. “You need a bath,” I said and pushed the Champ toward a faucet where a garden hose lie coiled.

“Up early?” the flight instructor who also ran the fuel truck, called. The sun was above the trees, and the air was cool and smelled of May.
“Got lots to do, Colleen,” I answered and sloshed cold water over the wings.
“Goin’ somewhere?”
I nodded and climbed off the stepladder to move it. My motions were quick, I was in a hurry to leave. Without knowing it I had a bright moon-smile.
“I’m flying south today.”
I squirted water over the windshield and scanned the cloudless morning sky. A turboprop commuter took off. Its propellers churned the morning air with a squeal like grinding coffee beans. I watched it bank over the terminal and head north.
“What’s down south?” the instructor asked from the truck cab.
“Don’t know. That’s why I’m going.”
She shook her head with a laugh and drove off to fuel a King Air being towed from one of the corporate hangars.

The Champ’s 65-horsepower motor ticked over quietly, and I spoke into the microphone connected to the old portable radio anchored to the floorboards between my feet.
“Tower, this is Champ 85607, at the ramp, ready to depart, southbound, and I don’t have the ATIS, and I don’t have a transponder, and I can’t get any other frequency than this one, and you probably won’t hear me on it after I clear the trees. What do you think of that?”
“Mikey? Is that you?”
“Morning, Rachael. It’s me. Can I get out of here?”
“Ah, Champ 607, sure, we're here to help. Taxi to runway 23, cleared for take-off, turn left on course, southbound.”
I opened the throttle drowning out whatever the tower said after that--something about wind and altimeters, but I could see the trees, and they were dead still. I didn’t need an altimeter setting to clear them.
The Champ’s tail rose, and as I felt the wings lift I eased back on the joystick. Steady at 60 mph, I climbed past the tower, close enough to see the supervisor shake his head. I rocked my wings and banked away.
“See you tomorrow, Mikey,” tower said.
“Don’t plan on it.”

For two hours the Champ flew with the morning sun climbing higher above the horizon. At first, I felt like a passenger merely along for the ride. But as the city fell behind and the vast Midwest landscape, thick with spring, unfolded before me I slowly took control of the airplane.
And somewhere outside a tiny four-building town I saw her airplane. It sat alone on a hilltop surrounded by gently moving grass sprinkled with wildflowers.
I flew low overhead, and from beneath a wing Kim appeared with Elizabeth at her feet.
I landed and stopped beside her.

Two Champs on a hilltop, and I smiled as bright a moon-smile as I could to match hers.
“Heading south?” she asked.
“Not sure where south is, but it would appear I'm headed that way,” I answered. And I know it's corny, but I could hear music.

The End
© Paul Berge, All rights reserved.

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